Sir William Barrett

Sir William Barrett FRS

Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science for Dublin from 1873-1910 and one of the distinguished early psychical researchers. In fact, it was Barrett who first initiated the founding of both the American and British Society for Psychical Research.

Human Personality: The Subliminal Self

 - Sir William Barrett FRS -

"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty . . . in apprehension how like a god!"
Hamlet II., 2.

          OUR CONSCIOUSNESS is the fundamental fact, the most real thing, of which we are aware, and although it consists of a succession of states of mind, no two of which are exactly alike, it is nevertheless combined into a continuous personal identity which we call "ourself." Even when there are interruptions of our self-consciousness, as in sleep, we recognise the self that wakes up in the morning as the same self that went to sleep overnight. So also throughout our life we are conscious of the same identity, the same self, albeit the whole material of body, brain and sensory organs has been repeatedly swept away and renewed.

Hence our personality is not a mere bundle of loose sensations: no succession of states of mind, no series of thoughts or feelings can fuse themselves into a single resultant consciousness, with a knowledge and memory of all the other states.

Everyone is now familiar with the rapid succession of instantaneous photographs seen in the cinematograph, where, for example, a series of pictures of a man running swiftly gives us the appearance of a single moving figure. But the photographs remain distinct; the combination is effected by something external to the pictures, our own perception. And so there must be something lying in the background of our consciousness which combines the series of impressions made upon us, or the states of feeling within us; this unifying power we may call our Ego or soul.

Even if the stream of consciousness be, as some believe, an epi-phenomenon, a series of shadows cast by the motion of brain processes, or if consciousness be an attribute of the molecules of organic matter, matter preceding mind, there must be some transcendental and permanent nexus, a soul, which unites successive sensations and perceptions into a coherent self-conscious personality; something which gives a meaning to and holds together the stream of manifold ideas.

It is a remarkable fact that a multitude of impressions are constantly being made upon us, to which this Ego appears to pay no heed. Either because they are not strong enough to pierce our consciousness - for a certain intensity must be reached before an impression can stir our Ego, - a relatively feeble stimulus, such as the light of the stars in daytime, cannot cross the threshold of our consciousness and gain an entrance to our mind - or because among the crowd of strong impressions which do enter, the Ego exercises a selective power. We direct our attention upon a few, chiefly because they interest us; these we are conscious of and can afterwards recall by an effort of memory. The will, moved in the first instance by desire - that is, by what interests us, our ruling love - determines the attention we give to particular impressions; thus we become conscious of, or alive to, thoughts or sensations excited by certain impressions, and let the rest go by unheeded. Our choice thus determines our experience, what we include in our material and mental possessions, our conscious "me"; the "me" being the known, the "I" the knowing self: all else we regard as the "not me."

Furthermore, this process of selection, if we do it regularly, soon becomes habitual or automatic; the effort of attention is no longer required, and the will is set free for some other purpose; for instance, we walk, or we combine the letters in reading instinctively without being conscious of the steps in the process.(1) And so with the world within ourselves, we do not perceive the regular and continuous beating of the heart, hence the processes of respiration, circulation, and nutrition go on unconsciously in a healthy body. And to some extent this is also true of the nutrition of the mind, for the character is built up, in part, by the stream of unconscious impressions made upon us.

(1) Education is, in great part, the training to do automatically and unconsciously what would otherwise have to be done with conscious effort. Genius is a still more striking example of the power of unconscious acts. And what is done by the unconscious self is more easily and better done than by the conscious self; hence it would seem as if the summit of attainment would lead to the absence of any conscious effort at all. This, indeed, is the logical outcome of all Naturalistic hypotheses of human life. In a striking passage in the second chapter of "Foundations of Belief," the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour has dealt with this very question.

Again, consciousness is not aroused by a continuous succession of uniform impressions. We should be utterly unconscious of warmth, however hot things might be, if everything were at one uniform temperature, and we should be equally unconscious of light if the universe and all material objects were illuminated with a continuous and uniform brightness. It is differences of state that we perceive, or the ratio of the strength of one sensation to another. The actual span of our consciousness is, therefore, very narrow. As the late Professor W. James, of Harvard, remarks in his valuable text-book on Psychology:

"One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them. The sum total of our impressions never enters into our experience, consciously so called, which runs through this sum total like a tiny rill through a broad flowery mead. Yet the physical impressions which do not count are there as much as those which do. Why they fail to pierce the mind is a mystery, and not explained when we invoke die Enge des Bewusstseins, "the narrowness of consciousness," as its ground."

All these impressions, whether we are conscious of them or not, leave some mark behind; they weave a visible or invisible thread into the fabric of our life; like every trivial act we perform, they make a perceptible or an imperceptible indent on our personality. We know that this is the case, that impressions not perceived when they were made have, nevertheless, effected a lodgment within us, for, although we cannot recall them at pleasure, they often emerge from their latent state in a fragmentary and disconnected manner. This is the case when the attention is withdrawn from things around us in reverie or "crystal gazing," or often in illness or dream, and still more in somnambulism or in hypnotic trance, and in many cases of automatic writing, or other so-called Spiritualistic phenomena.

Our Ego or soul is therefore not merely co-extensive with those things of which we are or have been conscious: the range of our personality must be extended to include something more than our normal self-consciousness. Not only are there, as it were, horizontal strata in our personality, from the material or lowest "me" up to the spiritual or highest "me," but there is also a vertical division which runs through all. On one side of this vertical plane of cleavage lie all those impressions which have penetrated our consciousness, all those states of thought and feeling which in our waking life memory can restore; on the other side lie the vastly greater number of impressions made upon us of which we were unconscious at the time, or, being conscious, have completely forgotten. One part of our Ego is, therefore, illuminated by consciousness, and another part lies in the dark shadow of unconsciousness.

Thus the outer or conscious self, as said, is not our entire self, any more than the visible or earth-turned face of the moon is the whole moon. Mr. Frederic Myers has well compared our normal self-consciousness to the visible spectrum of sunlight; beyond it on either side is a wide tract, imperceptible to the eye, yet crowded with radiation. Each pencil of sunlight embraces these invisible, as well as the visible, rays, and so each human personality embraces the unconscious as well as the conscious self. And just as experimental physics has within the present century revealed the existence of ultra-violet and infra-red portions of the spectrum, and shown us how we may, in art, render these obscure rays visible, so with the growth of experimental psychology we are beginning to discover the complex nature of our personality, and how that part of our Ego which is below the threshold of consciousness may be led to emerge from its obscurity. As the bright light of day quenches the feebler light of the stars, so the vivid stream of consciousness in our waking life must usually be withdrawn or enfeebled before the dim record of unheeded past impressions, or the telepathic impact of an extraneous mind, becomes apparent.

Hence, as we have already pointed out, a state of passivity is favourable to the emergence of the subliminal consciousness, and this is one of the characteristics of mediumship. It is true that in many cases of automatic writing by planchette or otherwise, long coherent messages are given whilst the thoughts of the medium are engaged on other matters, but the effort of attention is relaxed, and if it be directed to the writing, or any conscious effort made to assist it, the spell is broken, and the inner self sinks again into obscurity.(1) Furthermore, and singularly enough, this secondary or subliminal self never identifies itself with the ordinary waking self. Another person seems to have taken control of the hand or voice of the medium, a distinct intelligence that has its own past history, but with little, if any, knowledge of the past of the other self. The foreign nature of the "control" naturally suggests the agency of an external intelligence, a spirit or demon, "possessing" the medium, or of another personality that alternates with the normal soul.

(1) A similar sensitiveness to conscious attention is seen in experiments in thought-transference, and even in the pseudo thought reading of the "willing game"; and ignorance of this fact is what usually leads to failure. The intrusion of the will, of conscious effort, is therefore prejudicial in all such experiments. The well meaning endeavours of those who tell the percipient "to try earnestly" to guess the thing thought of, defeat the object in view. If the percipient does try, his will comes in and prevents the emergence of the hidden and responsive part of his personality. In fact, "psychical research" in general deals with the varied manifestations and operations of the unconscious part of our personality.

The well-known facts of "double consciousness" illustrate the latter;(1) a remarkable case of this kind I was personally acquainted with and investigated some years ago. The subject, since dead, was the son of a London clergyman, and the duration of the abnormal state became so extended that it was difficult to call it by that name, but however many days had elapsed since the transition from one state to the other, - a brief period of insensibility separating the two, - on the return to the previous state, the old conversation was resumed precisely at the point where it was interrupted; in the abnormal state considerable musical knowledge was possessed, of which the subject appeared to be quite ignorant in the other, state; the life, the interests, the conversation were quite distinct; even the parentage and family were regarded as different in the two states.(2) These cases of alternating personality resemble, some of the delusions of the insane, and from time immemorial have led to the belief that the rightful owner of the body has been temporarily or permanently displaced, and another soul has taken "possession," like a cuckoo, of a nest that is not its own.

(1) A possible, though only partial, explanation of dual consciousness is the separate action of the two lobes of the brain caused by an alternating inhibition of the functions of each lobe.

(2) This case is given in full in "Proceedings S. P. R.," Vol. IV, pp. 230-232.

The whole subject of the dissociation of personality has in recent years received careful study by eminent psychologists, and the reader will find an admirable discussion of this question in Chapter 2 of Mr. F. W. H. Myers' great work "Human Personality."

Multiple, as well as secondary, personalities, sometimes are exhibited by the same subject. Such, for example, are the well known cases of Leonie, investigated by Professor P. Janet; Louis Vive; Sally Beauchamp, investigated by Dr. Morton Prince, of Boston, U.S.A. and other instances known to psychologists.

More recently a remarkable case of multiple personality in an American girl named Doris Fischer has received minute and continuous study by Dr. Walter Prince. His report fills two bulky volumes of the Proceedings of the American S.P.R., to which Dr. Hyslop has contributed a lengthy and valuable addition.

The classical case of Miss Beauchamp, fully described in Dr. Morton Prince's work "The Dissociation of a Personality"(1) is briefly as follows:

(1) Also in "Proceedings S P R" Vol. XV, and "Human Personality," Vol. I., P. 360 et seq.. Mr. Norman Pearson in his recent able and suggestive work, "The Soul and its Story," (to which I am glad to draw attention), also gives an abstract of this case. But the most important discussion of the whole subject is by Dr. W. McDougall, F.R.S., in "Proceedings S.P.R.," Vol. XIX.

A mental shock which Miss Beauchamp received at College in 1893 produced the first disintegration of consciousness, she became modified into what Dr. Prince terms BI. This personality alternated with another B2, at first induced by hypnotic treatment. In course of time a new and wholly different personality appeared B3, which called itself "Sally."

Whilst BI was cultivated, quiet and deeply religious, B3 was the reverse and full of mischief. Later on another personality appeared B4, proud, selfish and dignified. BI and B4 knew nothing of the others, B2 knew only BI, but B3 (Sally) knew all the others, was always awake and alert to annoy Miss Beauchamp, BI.

Dr. Morton Prince calls BI the Saint, B4 the Woman, and B3 the Devil. For Sally made BI tell lies, sent her things she detested, and constantly mortified and distressed the truthful and good BI. No wonder Miss Beauchamp wrote, "Oh, Dr. Prince save me from myself, from whatever it is that is absolutely merciless; I can bear anything but not this mocking devil."

Eventually by hypnotic suggestion, and with the help of Sally, all except B3, became merged into what was the original Miss Beauchamp. Sally, B3, now tended to sink out of sight, going back, as she said, "to where I came from." Where was that? According to Dr. Prince it was the subliminal self of Miss Beauchamp for a time developed into an independent personality, her other personalities being cleavages from the primary conscious self.

But I agree with Dr. McDougall that Dr. Prince's explanation of Sally is unsatisfactory. It is using an hypothesis, the subliminal self, not even accepted by all psychologists, as a mere cloak for our ignorance. Dr. McDougall inclines to the view that Sally was a distinct psychic being controlling the body of Miss Beauchamp. The case of Doris Fischer, which in many respects resembles the foregoing, lends support to this view, that occasionally a human body may be the seat of a real invasion from the spirit world, a case of obsession. If we admit the spirit hypothesis there is nothing improbable in this view. In Doris, the invading spirit, if such it were, assisted, like Sally, in the cure and ultimate restoration of the subject to a normal condition, after many years of suffering and periodical alternations of personality. One of the most extraordinary cases of changed personality is the following.

Lurancy Vennum was an American girl who, at the age of 14, became controlled apparently by the spirit of Mary Roff, a neighbour's daughter, who had died at the age of 19, when Lurancy was only 15 months old. The two families lived far apart, except for a short time, and had only the slightest acquaintance with each other. Nevertheless Lurancy, in her new personality, called the Roffs' her parents, knew intimate details of their family life, recognised and called by name the relatives and friends of the Roffs, knew trivial incidents in the life of Mary Roff, and for four months really seemed to be a reincarnation of Mary Roff.

This brief summary gives an inadequate idea of the whole story,(1) which rests upon excellent testimony. Dr. Hodgson, who personally investigated this case, was of opinion that Lurancy was really controlled by the spirit of the deceased Mary Roff.

(1) Given in Dr. Stevens' brochure "The Watseka Wonder," published at Rochester, U.S.A., and also in "Human Personality," Vol. I., P. 360 et seq.

Probably few psychologists today would accept this conclusion, but the vital importance of an unbiased discussion of cases of multiple personality, such as Sally Beauchamp, has been pointed out by Dr. W. McDougall, F.R.S. We cannot of course lightly set aside the weight of evidence which shows the apparent dependence of memory and therefore of personality, on the persistence of the brain and the physical changes produced in it by our experience. Nevertheless, as Dr. W. McDougall remarks:

"If we accept Dr. Prince's description of Sally Beauchamp we can only account for her by adopting the view that the normal personality consists of body and soul in interaction, the soul being not dependant upon the brain, or other physical basis, for its memory, but having the faculty of retaining and remembering among its other faculties. . . . This conclusion would give very strong support to the spiritistic explanation of such cases as Mrs. Piper, and would go far to justify the belief in the survival of human personality after the death of the body."(1)

(1) "Proc. S. P. R.," Vol. xix, P. 430.

Other articles by William Barrett

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